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Michi again approached, bearing another white lacquered tray. This time Minobu's wakizashilay on the shining surface. The sword was closely wrapped with rice paper, which was tied at three points with a red cord. Only three centimeters of the blade's shining steel was visible at one end. At the other, the lacquered wood handle was bare, showing the Tetsuhara family mon.

Carefully, he knelt and placed the tray in front of Minobu. The sword lay with its edge toward Minobu, pointing to his left. Michi bowed, rose, and walked around to Minobu's right. He crossed behind his sensei.Stopping slightly behind Wolf, he knelt next to the Dragoon.

“Jumonji,”Minobu said in a low voice that did not reach beyond the two men kneeling behind him.

Michi leaned over to Wolf and whispered, “He asked you to wait until he has made the second, crosswise cut.”

Wolf's nostrils went wide as he sucked in air, but he nodded slightly to confirm his understanding.

In a deliberate motion, Minobu reached out a steady hand and took the sword that lay before him. He looked down at it. In its shining surface, he saw reflections of all that had made his life worthwhile. Its shine was the sheen of his honor.

He turned the point toward his abdomen and focused his ki.

He stabbed the sword deeply into his flesh, on the left side below his navel. He drew it slowly across to the right. Turning the sword in the wound, he cut upward toward his heart.

He felt no pain. His kiliberated him from that. There was a small click behind him to the left.

Oblivion.

Wolf's nostrils stung from the sour scent of bile and singed hair. Tears blurred his vision as he knelt to free the short sword from Minobu's limp hands. He shoved the bloody blade into its scabbard and picked up Minobu's long sword as well.

“What are you doing, Colonel?” Michi asked, appalled by the lack of respect shown to the sword. “The swords must go to his family.”

“Don't worry, Michi. They will. I only want to arrange for a suitable messenger.”

Epilogue

ComStar First Circuit Compound

Hilton Head Island, North America, Terra

17 August 3028

 

“You are most welcome here, Colonel Wolf,” Julian Tiepolo almost shouted.

Heads turned to stare at the black-jacketed mercenary. Wolf threw the ComStar Primus a contemptuous glance and returned to scanning the crowd in the room below him. His gaze swept the festive assembly gathered for the occasion of the marriage of Prince Hanse Davion of the Federated Suns to Melissa Steiner, heir to the Archonship of the Lyran Commonwealth. Wolf was a predator searching a flock for his prey.

The mention of the mercenary's name cut through the noise around Takashi Kurita and captured his attention. He turned to look across the room at the short man standing at the top of the stairs. Despite his size, the mercenary's presence suddenly dominated the room.

It was plain that Wolf was agitated. He hefted a meter-long bundle swathed in black and silver-brocaded fabric. The motion made his wolf's-head epaulet glitter with a hard light that matched the look in his eyes. People sidled away from that cold stare.

Wolf's gaze met Takashi's. The Coordinator knew instantly whom the mercenary was seeking.

Wolf started down the stairs in Takashi's direction, the crowd melting away from him. Even the gallant senior officers and officials who surrounded Takashi slipped out of the mercenary's path. All except Yorinaga Kurita.

Takashi read the tension between the two ‘Mech Warriors as they stood face to face. Almost imperceptibly, Wolf nodded. Yorinaga relaxed. Satisfied that Wolf was no physical danger to his cousin, Yorinaga Kurita nodded in return, but held his ground.

Takashi laid a hand on Yorinaga's shoulder, signaling his acceptance of the mercenary's presence with a squeeze. The younger Kurita bowed and stepped back to take a watchful position a few meters away.

Wolf stripped the fabric from his burden. As the paired swords came into view, Yorinaga took a half-step forward. ComStar had forbidden all weapons at the festivities, but somehow Wolf had managed to bring in these. Yorinaga halted when the weapons clattered to the floor at Takashi's feet.

Takashi looked down at the swords. The shorter one had landed atop the longer. A dark reddish stain marred the lacquer on the upper sword's hilt and covered one of the monsymbols. The other symbols were still clear and white against the black background. He recognized the Tetsuhara family crest.

When Takashi raised his eyes toward Wolf, the mercenary launched into fluent and rapid Japanese of a blunt and disrespectful form.

“Those are all that is left of a good man! When you return them to his family, you won't have to lie. You can tell them he stood by his honor till the end. I hope you're satisfied with what you have arranged. You were a fool to force him to this.”

Takashi's face was hard. By sheer force of will, he restrained his anger. He started to speak, but Wolf forged ahead.

“You thought you could do better than Anton Marik, didn't you? Thought you had the answers he missed. You were wrong!

“You certainly spilled more blood. You even cost us more property, but that counts little against the lives you took. We Dragoons set great store by our people. No one touches them and gets away with it. No one!

“It's all been for nothing, you know. You've failed. The Dragoons are clear of the Combine and ready to fight. We have survived both your puny schemes and your overrated military might. We've whipped your Warlord and left him licking his wounds. You really should get a better thug to do your dirty work.”

Wolf paused, his immediate rage spent. The gold braid cord looped under his right armpit trembled with the tension in his body. When Takashi spoke, his voice was calm and even, like one trying to calm a dangerous beast. “You misunderstand, Colonel Wolf. This,” he said, indicating the swords at his feet, “was never my wish. I valued Minobu Tetsuhara.

“Samsonov did not act with my approval. I warned you that others would take independent action ...”

“Save your lies for the gullible,” Wolf snapped. “You've paid a high price and you don't even know the whole of what you've bought. If I thought you were an honorable man, I'd make it personal.

“From this day, the Dragoons are at war with you and your House, Takashi Kurita! If you think you can take us, go ahead and try. We'll see you in ruins. Watch your border!”

Wolf stopped, slightly out of breath.

Takashi could see that Wolf might have run out of words, but that his store of rage was far from emptied. Nothing Takashi could say could change the man's heart. The Coordinator bowed slightly to acknowledge his understanding.

Wolf's nostrils flared and his jaw clenched. He turned his back on the Coordinator and stalked off across the hall, black boots striking hard against the polished surface of inlaid marble.

With a peremptory gesture of his hand, Takashi summoned one of his officials. His face was a mask, only the eyes alive. They never left the retreating back of the mercenary Colonel as he spoke, “I want to know how Wolf got here before I was given word of the result of the fighting on Misery. Find out who is responsible and have him shot.”

The nervous official started to leave, but Takashi stayed him with a lifted finger.

“Also arrange for the delivery of Grieg Samsonov's head. His bungling has cost too much this time.” The official scurried off.

Takashi frowned as he watched Wolf fall into conversation with Morgan Kell. While he pondered the possible subject of the mercenaries' conversation, Yorinaga returned to his side. “Wolf is strong-willed,” he said. “A dangerous man.”